Defining horse jargon: Beginner riding terms

Eliminate confusing horse jargon by defining commonly used terms.

Little girl on horse
Riders of all ages can benefit from riding lessons. Photo by Taylor Fabus, MSU Extension.

Riding lessons can be a great way to build confidence in riders of all ages. However, nothing will deflate your confidence quite as quickly as the confusing language that riding instructors often utilize. If you’ve ever felt like your riding instructor was speaking in some ancient secret code, be comforted knowing that you aren’t alone. While most instructors do their best to simply and accurately explain topics to help you improve as a rider, even the best teachers forget to explain basic jargon.

In this brand-new article series from Michigan State University Extension, we will work to define many common terms, starting here with terms that will be commonly heard in a beginner riding lesson. Many of these terms will build upon each other, and these terms will be utilized for riders of all ages and skill levels. While not all terms will be covered, the following are common between a variety of riding styles and disciplines.


Let’s get started with a word used right in the introduction of this article, discipline. Although this term is often closely associated with work ethic, it has a much different definition in this context. Discipline refers to a type or style of riding. Some examples include, but are not limited to, dressage, western, hunt seat, hunter jumper, trail riding and gymkhana.

Inside versus outside

The terms inside and outside are used to describe location in reference to where you are in the arena. You may hear a riding instructor, coach or trainer say something along the lines of “inside leg” or “outside rein.”

The term outside means the side towards the outside of the arena, or outside of a circle. Much the same, the term inside is referring to the side towards the middle or innermost area of the riding arena or circle. Once learned, these spatial terms can be used very effectively with riders of all skill levels and abilities, certainly not just with beginners.


The fence, wall or outer barrier of the arena is typically referred to as the rail. “Keep your horse on the rail” is another way to say, “Don’t allow your horse to come towards the inside/center of the arena.”

Soft hands

Defining this term is certainly much easier than developing “soft hands” as a skill. This difficult task is essentially the ability to keep your hands, which are directly attached to a bit inside the horse’s mouth, soft, forgiving and supple when steering, stopping or providing the horse a que that involves the reins. This task is much more difficult for an unbalanced, fearful rider.

Developing soft and supple hands that maintain a somewhat consistent amount of pressure on the horse’s mouth is a skill that takes years and many hours in the saddle to develop. Quick, hard or harsh pulls on the reins would be the opposite of soft hands.

Deep seat

Effective riders can communicate with their horses in a variety of ways. Above we described how soft hands can be one mean of communication, another one is the rider’s seat. In order to utilize their seat, a ride must work to move in unison with their horse, rather than fighting the movement of the horse. For a rider to sit still, they must move in unison with the horse’s movement. In order to move with a horse’s movement, a rider should work to develop a deep seat where they place the majority of their weight on their seat bones (Think about sitting on the pocket of the pants, not the crotch.). An effective deep seat can help a horse complete an athletic task.

Quiet leg

This term is similar to soft hands but is referencing a rider’s legs specifically. A rider with a quiet leg will often have legs that move very little, and only squeeze pressure around the horse to provide a que of some sort. A rider that moves their leg a lot while on the horse is likely to inadvertently kick the horse and potentially confuse the horse. If a rider fails to have quiet legs, you wouldn’t say they have “loud legs” though. Instead, you may describe that rider as being “busy with their legs” or “unsteady in their legs.”

More leg

A riding instructor commonly says “more leg” when they want the rider to use more leg pressure on the horse’s side. An effective rider will often keep a constant, soft pressure on a horse’s side at all times while riding. There are a variety of reasons where horses respond differently to pressure, such as training level, discipline and individual preference.

Shorten, tighten or loosen your rein

The rein is what the rider holds in their hands that is directly attached to a bit in the horse’s mouth. This serves as a direct line of communication between a horse and the rider’s hands. The length of rein refers to the amount of rein between the rider’s hands and the horse’s mouth. Depending on the task a rider is asking the horse to perform, the ideal rein length can vary. Therefore, a riding instructor may coach a rider by telling them to shorten or lengthen their reins before performing a task.

Shortening the reins would mean the rider decreases the amount of rein between their hands and the horse’s mouth by inching their hands on the reins towards the horse’s mouth. Another way to describe this would be “tighten the reins,” “tighten up the reins” or “take up the slack in the reins.” Depending on how much a rider shortens their reins, this can increase the pressure on a horse’s mouth.

Conversely, if the rider should need to “lengthen the reins,” “loosen the reins” or “give the horse more slack,” they will inch their hands down the reins away from the horse’s mouth. This is done to decrease the amount of pressure on a horse’s mouth.

Heels down

Probably one of the most common sayings in a riding lesson is heels down, but the term really describes so much more than just what is happening with the rider’s feet. Essentially, when a rider’s foot is in a stirrup (or even if the rider is riding without stirrups) their heel should be closer to the ground than their toes. An effective rider will accomplish this by stretching their legs long and letting the weight of their body sink into both their seat and a low, flexible heel. Low heels are a manifestation of a rider who has a deep seat and quiet leg. When riders do not keep constant weight in their stirrup and a lowered heel, they will have a more difficult time keeping their foot properly positioned in the stirrup as well.


Groundwork refers to working with a horse while not mounted. Many training concepts are first introduced to horses and riders through effective groundwork. Groundwork is often less intimidating for new riders, but working with a horse on the ground can still be dangerous. It is crucial that a horse, especially a beginner lesson horse, have excellent ground manners to reduce the risks and danger of groundwork. Horses should respect human’s personal space and be aware of their surroundings in order to prevent the risk of injuries to horses and humans. It is a human’s job to reinforce good ground manners.

While this list of terms may seem daunting at first, hopefully this helped eliminate some confusion. Look for the next articles in this series soon on advanced riding terms and horse sale terms.

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